Given the current political climate in California, Governor Gavin Newsom’s election of MP Rob Bonta as attorney general was virtually predetermined.
Newsom passionately welcomes the identity politics that dominate its Democratic Party and feels compelled to honor its main ethnic, gender and cultural components through appointments.
When Newsom made his first appointment to the state Supreme Court last year, he proudly stated that retired appeals court judge Martin Jenkins would be “the first openly gay judge on the California Supreme Court and only the third African American to ever stand in the highest court of the state was operating. ”
Just a month later, California Senator Kamala Harris, who identifies herself as both Black and Asiatic-American, was elected Vice President, giving Newsom another try at a high-profile appointment.
Newsom was under pressure to appoint a successor representing at least one of their three identities, but instead chose a male Latino, Secretary of State Alex Padilla, while also appointing a black woman, MP Shirley Weber, to succeed Padilla.
Newsom hailed her as “California’s first Latin American Senator (and) the first African American Secretary of State”.
With Weber, Newsom clearly made up for not naming a black woman to succeed Harris, but he did give her an office a few steps below a Senate seat. As the campaign in memory of him intensified, Newsom attempted to stave off any remaining disappointment among black leaders by publicly promising to elect a black woman to succeed Senator Dianne Feinstein if she was in office before her term expired in three years Should retire.
All of these appointments – and the promise to Feinstein’s seat – kept a large group, the Americans of Asia, still waiting to be matured in the intricate machinations of identity politics. When Attorney General Xavier Becerra was won over as Minister of Health and Welfare by President Joe Biden, Newsom was practically forced to appoint an Asian-American successor, largely in response to the recent flurry of anti-Asian violence.
With the choice of Bonta, who was born in the Philippines and moved to California with his parents as a child, Newsom closed the circle of identity dates and made sure all major groups would remain loyal during the recall campaign that followed.
Bonta is a two-pronged appointment indeed, as he can also identify with the most liberal or progressive wing of the Democratic Party, appeasing its activists who sometimes accuse Newsom of moving too slowly to the left.
Beyond identity politics, Bonta’s ideological positioning is the most important aspect of his selection as it gives a huge boost to those looking to overhaul California’s criminal justice system to make it less criminal and more restorative. Bonta has championed the cause, including landmark bail-off legislation that was overturned by voters last year.
“Too many Californians face injustices in the many broken parts of our criminal justice system,” said Bonta, “and they deserve more compassion, more humanity and a second chance.”
Bonta will team up with a small cadre of reform-minded prosecutors, led by George Gascón, who was the San Francisco District Attorney before defeating Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey last year.
Gascón and several other like-minded prosecutors formed their own group, the Prosecutors Alliance of California, which is waging an open war with the California District Attorneys Association. The new organization specifically praised Bonta as “a leader who has dedicated his career to protecting and elevating vulnerable communities”.
Dan Walters is a CalMatters columnist.